In another organization, John Hicks would be getting all the attention. A young, athletic catching prospect who is outstanding defensively, and far better than average offensively: It’s something that every team covets.
And yet, when Seattle’s future at catcher is discussed, Hicks’ name isn’t the first to be mentioned.
He’s a bit of an unknown with just two minor league seasons of pro experience.
But the real reason has nothing to do with what Hicks has or hasn’t done since he was drafted out of the University of Virginia in the fourth round of the 2011 amateur free agent draft.
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It’s because the Mariners drafted Mike Zunino, an ultra-talented catcher, with the third overall pick of last year’s draft.
In the short time since he was selected, Zunino has lived up to almost all the lofty expectations that made him the Mariners’ top pick a year ago.
Well, he’s mentioned by scouts and analysts, but always after Zunino, who is considered the top position player prospect in the organization.
Does that matter to Hicks?
“No,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t worry about that stuff.”
There is a no-nonsense attitude to Hicks. He works. He plays. He leads. Then he repeats it the next day.
That pattern has made him successful in his first two seasons in the Seattle organization.
Last year, in his first full season, Hicks played 121 games in Advanced Class A High Desert — catching 98. He hit .312 (158-for-506) with 32 doubles, 15 homers and 79 RBI with a .351 on-base-percentage and a .472 slugging percentage.
“I thought I had a decent year offensively,” he said. “I don’t strike out often. I just try and put the ball in play.”
While the offensive numbers were good, Hicks’ defense was outstanding. Of 106 baserunners who attempted to steal against him, Hicks threw out 57. His 53.8 caught-stealing percentage was the highest among full-season minor league catchers last season.
“The numbers are incredible,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
How does he do it?
Well, arm strength helps.
“He’s got a cannon for an arm,” said Danny Hultzen, a top pitching prospect for the Mariners who had Hicks as a catcher at Virginia.
But plenty of catchers have strong arms and don’t throw out runners the way Hicks does. It’s the accuracy that makes his arm impressive.
“They all seem like they are right at the knee of the shortstop and all he has to do is tag the guy,” Hultzen said of Hicks’ throws.
Brad Miller, who was High Desert’s shortstop, didn’t disagree with that assessment.
“He’s awesome,” Miller said. “It seemed like he threw out pretty much everybody. He has a way of getting it down there regardless of what the pitcher is doing. He was always on the money.”
But it isn’t just throwing that defines him as a catcher. Hicks is outstanding at blocking pitches, calling an effective game and embracing details of the position that are beyond statistical analysis.
“I do throw the ball well,” Hicks said. “But I just try to do anything I can to help the pitchers out. I usually have a great relationship with my pitchers. I try to get to know those guys — what they throw best, what they like to do in tough situations. Everything.”
A catcher must be a leader on the field and Hicks has assumed that role at every level.
“Yeah, he is an awesome defensive catcher,” Hultzen said. “But what sticks out to me — he’s really a leader. He takes charge of the entire field, and especially that relationship between the pitcher and the catcher. There were dozens of times where he would come out and kind of slap me in the face and tell me, ‘Get your head in the game.’ He was really good at that.”
Going into spring training, Wedge mentioned his interest in seeing Hicks play. He hasn’t been disappointed.
“John Hicks is an athlete,’’ Wedge said with a grin.
Hicks looks like an athlete, not a catcher. It’s the first thing you notice about Hicks when he stands with the rest of the catchers in camp. He’s got a lean, muscular physique. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he looks more like an outfielder. And he can run like an outfielder, too.
“He’s fast,” Hultzen said. “And I don’t mean fast for a catcher. I mean fast for a baseball player.”
Think about Jesus Montero’s speed – or lack of it. Hicks is the complete opposite of that. He even stole 22 bases last season.
This spring he’s hitting .571 (4-for-7). On Saturday against the Dodgers, he laced a two-run double to right-center field off of former Mariners closer Brandon League.
“You have to love the way he plays, whether it’s at home plate, catching, or at the plate hitting, and particularly on the basepaths,” Wedge said. “He’s a heads-up player. He’s a smart young man. He’s been very impressive in this camp so far.”
No matter how impressive Hicks is, he still sits behind Zunino on the depth chart. Hicks will likely begin the season at Double-A Jackson, with Zunino at Triple-A Tacoma.
“He’s such a good athlete,” Mariners director of minor league operations Chris Gwynn said. “He’s further along at this point than people thought he would be, so that’s very positive.”
So, while Zunino gets the much-deserved hype, Hicks will still be there waiting for a chance.
“I just have to keep working every day,” Hicks said. “That’s what you have to do. If you do that, you’ll get your chance.”